When I was studying how to overcome perfectionism, I kept reading, “Perfectionists have unrealistic standards for excellence,” and thought, “Who decides what’s unrealistic?” As a researcher, I’m suppose to push the boundaries of science. So, achieving things that others haven’t wasn’t unusual it was expected.
So, what does unrealistic mean?
Brian Tracy supposedly said, “There are no unrealistic goals, just unrealistic deadlines.” Now that, I could wrap my head around. At least, there is recognition of constraints, whether they be knowledge, skill, resources, etc.
Perhaps it’s not asking if the standard is unrealistic, but rather how do you go about achieving it.
As I pondered all my past stress, I realized many came from faulty thinking.
I’m writing this post to share the 6 lessons learned, so you don’t make the mistakes I did.
1) Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
As a perfectionist, I dive deep into things to achieve mastery AND do things myself to ensure I get what I want. As a result, there are a lot of things I can do. But that doesn’t translate to an effective outcome.
Case in point, I had a fantastic business software idea. In simplest terms, it would examine our company’s research portfolio and look for interim products with economic value. In research and development (R&D), it’s not unusual for a product to undergo several stages of development. Some stages take years to optimize for it to be ready for the next level. That creates some inefficiencies or opportunities.
Some of these staged products have enough market interest to be sold as a stand-alone. My software would identify and prioritize these candidates. As some R&D projects take decades to complete, we would make revenue years earlier while still developing our main product line.
The challenge was my tool was mostly interactive visualizations. Now, I had a programming background and developed graphical user interfaces in the past. So, in theory, I had the experience to knock this out. But this design would be more than anything I had done in the past. And being a perfectionist, I had pretty ambitious goals.
The old me would have done the following:
- Research a few days to figure out what visualization language supports all the features I wanted.
- Buy a few books and enroll in a few online courses to get up to speed on my selected language.
- Endure a few weeks of caffeine-fueled programming binges learning the basics.
- Transition to coding the prototype while ignoring my family and health.
- Load up with mock data to perform A/B testing of different prototypes.
- Select an interface and collect all the data to power the database that enables the visualization.
- Spend a few weeks going through different use cases and verify with marketing data to see if the predictions ran true.
The battle-tested me said, “Uh, no” to the above:
- It’s true that if I did the visualization work, I would have gotten the look I wanted. But I had no intention of becoming a front-end developer. So, all that work on steps 1-5 wasn’t going to give me a skill to advance my current career.
- Steps 1-5 also would take several months. And while this idea had a lot of potential, it would have to be done on my own time since I was swamped with my day-to-day tasks, and we had no extra resources or funding.
So, what I did instead was build a mockup in PowerPoint. I showed it to my chief operating officer (COO), who liked it so much he scrounged up $100K towards further development. I then leveraged another project, which was outsourcing to a software contract firm to borrow time from their front-end developer.
I then offloaded a lot of the interface work to the contractor. While his designs were never quite what I wanted despite numerous iterations, this did give me time to gather the data and firm up the business analysis.
Long story short, I continued iterating with the developer and giving progress updates to the COO. Over time, I got more and more funding to develop the tool further as he liked what he saw.
Unfortunately, the COO retired and the project stalled as a new COO was being onboarded. I eventually left the company before further work could continue. But the lesson learned here is I could have killed myself spending all this time doing everything myself because I could. Instead, I figured out where my unique value add was and invested in there.
While the interface played a central role, it was eye candy and could have been done by any front-end developer. The critical value proposition was in demoing and showcasing the business analysis. That’s where the value-add was, and only I could do that.
As a side note, this story illustrates Pareto’s law of a vital few having a disproportionate effect. Only the last 2 steps demonstrating the business analysis were core to the product’s viability. The other 5 steps were prep work, which I could have easily squandered my time on for little gain.
2) Imperfect but Relevant Beats Perfect but Irrelevant
Despite your best efforts, there are times you don’t click with an individual for whatever reason. This is especially a problem when their approval is what’s needed for you to succeed.
I’ve had my share of bosses who gave me a laundry list of everything they wanted to see in the work product. Generally, this wouldn’t be a problem, except they were vague about what they needed or didn’t have a clue but wouldn’t admit it.
Irrespective, I did my best to be as complete and as thorough as possible, only to be told, “You missed the point. That’s not what I want. Go fix it and come back to me.” I should add that was the extent of the feedback.
There are two ways to respond to the above – aside from ranting, “That comment was #$@%@^ useful.”
Old me would have invested even more blood, sweat, and tears into speculating on what they wanted. The problem is this doesn’t work when you don’t click with someone. You are on a different plane. What’s right to you may look nothing like what they are asking for, no matter how hard you try.
Experienced me takes a different approach. First, accept that you will be wrong no matter what you do. The point is not to go deep but to learn fast. Make a few permutations on the work product. Include some changes that are entirely out of the ballpark. Risk looking stupid.
This last point seems career-ending, but there’s a rationale. A lot of bosses are distracted and reactionary. In other words, they are dealing with so many fires that they are biased towards things that are “wrong.” If you have something that looks “odd” to them, it grabs their attention and gets them to focus. This gives them and, by extension, you clarity on the ask. They will often give you a more detailed explanation of where you went off the rails and specify what they want to see. And if nothing else, you have data on what they don’t like.
Just make sure you highlight the crazy “odd” part. Either the boss is paying attention and catches it, or they don’t. If the latter, then you have other issues since they don’t care.
Now, what if they don’t have a clue.
You follow the same approach – make some minor adjustments, nothing comprehensive or extensive (don’t forget to add something a little wild), and get feedback.
But you need to be mindful of a few things. First, some people know what they want but can’t articulate it. For these types, they need to think things through. So, giving them options lets them see what’s available to change. These types are frustrating, but you can figure them out.
The annoying group is people who recognize what they initially wanted was wrong, but only after you presented what they asked for. But they don’t want to admit fault, so instead, they state it’s not what was asked.
I’ve done enough CYA’s (cover your a__) to know I delivered their ask. But telling your boss that they are wrong only gets you so far. All the CYA gives you is proof you’re not crazy.
This lesson’s point is getting feedback makes more progress than going down the “right” path. By having opportunities to course-correct, you avoid finding out last minute the acceptance criteria changed. (Naturally, this works best if you can iterate).
3) What is Perfect Today Maybe Imperfect Tomorrow
In a workshop, the author Benjamin Hardy confessed that if he wrote his book, Willpower Doesn’t Work, it would be a different book today than when he wrote it. He said that he grew and learned more as a person during the interim, so his perspective on some points changed.
As a perfectionist, I was first floored by that revelation. It made me think, “As a writer, how can you admit that? Doesn’t that create inconsistencies? Why should I trust what you write now if it changes later?” But the scientist in me said, “Knowledge evolves.” What happens 10 years from now can alter what we understand today. For example, much of the microbial taxonomy I learned as an undergrad is as dated as a steam train is to a Tesla.
This last point is especially relevant now as change is happening at an accelerated rate. New areas of science, technology, and business are continually being discovered. So, what is fantastic today may be outdated tomorrow.
As a perfectionist, I would spend hours researching and working to find the “best” possible solution. In my head, I wanted my work product to be “perfect” so it could withstand the test of time. But after hearing Hardy’s talk, I realized that such efforts are ultimately futile. Today’s perfect may become tomorrow’s imperfect through no fault of my own.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for excellence. But it suggests there is an expiration date if you keep tinkering on perfection. So, it’s better to get something out there and iterate on feedback instead of expecting it to be forever perfect. After all, the one certainty is change happens.
So, do the best you can with what you have now and hope for the best.
4) Not Everything is Important
As a perfectionist, I obsess about being thorough as well as not being wrong. Hence, I do a ton of research to cover all the bases. Unfortunately, this consumes an enormous amount of time and resources. In turn, this effort has a nefarious effect on making me prone to a sunk cost bias.
Case in point, in my various lines of work, I gave presentations. In the past, when I gave these talks, my perfectionism compelled me to list every possible factoid on a slide to make sure: 1) I didn’t miss anything, and 2) subconsciously, justify all the effort I spent in gathering the information (Afterall, how can I not use this tidbit after reading 20 papers?)
The problem is when you have an abundance of data, you don’t have time to give each point enough love and dedication. Where this comes to bite you is when you’re presenting to your division lead, who gets fixated on sub-sub-bullet 3 on slide 21. They spend 20 minutes grilling you with in-depth questions on every little detail on that point.
And then, the sharks smell blood, and people start critiquing other parts of your talk. Your presentation gets derailed, and now you rush through the slides to make for lost time. A post-mortem reveals that you got 20 questions on sub-sub-bullet 3. Not on the analysis, not on the conclusion, not on 95% of the content you spent days getting ready. But on some freaking factoid that you put there because you had a 30-second thought that it was something you should put down…
I previously thought such managers were just a pain in the a__, but then I noticed an interesting pattern. Some of them were perfectionists themselves, and they fixated on that minor detail because they couldn’t see its relevance to the presentation. In other words, their logic is, “Only an idiot would put something minor on the slide, but I’m not seeing how this ties into the rest of the presentation. I don’t want to seem stupid. What am I missing?” So, they drill in, trying to figure it out. Of course, they’re not missing anything since I put it there for completeness.
So, the moral of the story: completeness does not equate to importance. If by taking something out, the meaning isn’t affected, then you don’t need it. (Yes, it sucks not to use it but getting roasted on a factoid is more painful.)
5) Point of the Plan is to Not Follow the Plan
A common phrase in the military is, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In other words, no matter how careful or meticulous you plan, reality will do what reality wants despite your efforts. So, some folks go, “Why plan if things aren’t going to go your way?” Or others try to plan for every possible contingency only to have our sun die by the time they finished.
The problem is people forget what the purpose of a plan is, especially perfectionists. They spend so much time and energy planning that they are unwilling to let go when things don’t go as expected.
Their sunk cost bias, along with rigidity, makes them unable to adapt or be flexible.
Or, in some cases, perfectionists refuse to change because to do so means that their planning wasn’t good enough and reflects poorly on them.
Regardless, the goal of a plan is to ensure that you make progress to achieve your objective. A good plan tells you what resources, skills, and knowledge you need to go from start to finish. It also highlights the tasks, their dependencies, and their ordering that need to happen.
These considerations are important because a plan suggests a “best” way to get to where you want to go. But, it’s a means, NOT a destination. It’s still possible to get to the goal if you don’t follow the plan, perhaps more challenging but not impossible. In other words, it’s not unique or the only answer.
Another element is your planning is limited to what you know when you started. The point is you can’t foresee what you don’t know. When you plan, you make assumptions about what you think is going to happen. If things turn out quite differently, then you may need to reconsider your approach or even the target.
Failure to do so puts your progress at risk, all because of the perfectionist ego.
To summarize, planning is crucial because it suggests to you what’s important. Following it blindly, however, diminishes its value since you forgot it’s not infallible.
6) Be Zen When Interruptions Happen
Related to planning, I wish I could operate as precisely as a Swiss watch. As a perfectionist, I tend to have very ambitious goals and aggressive timelines. Not to mention, it’s difficult for me to get back into the flow of things when I get interrupted. To ensure that I get stuff done, I tell my family when I’m in the home office a few things:
- I will be working from this time to this time, so they know I will be busy.
- When the door is closed, please do not disturb me.
- If I have my headphones on and I’m glaring at the monitor, chances are I’m in deep thought. So, unless it’s an emergency, please do not disturb me.
So far, that works 80% of the time, and I suspect mainly because they are doing their own thing that doesn’t involve me.
Why do I bring this up? Because while I’m not proud of it, my family’s interruptions in the past disrupted my workflow harmony in a MAJOR way. And it was often not because of a life or death emergency – which would be understandable – but because at some point, they felt it was their life mission to share some galactic epiphany, “Dad, should I use El Primo for my matchup with Rosa in Brawl Stars?” Or ask a world-altering question, such as “Chicken or pork for lunch?”
Now, I’m not the fastest thinker in the world. So, when I block off time to think, it’s because I need to exert quite a lot of mental energy. Unfortunately, these interruptions throw my game off, and it takes me a while to get back into the flow of things.
One benefit of reading several books on overcoming perfectionism is now I’m better at just letting it slide. Yeah, my work persona gets irritated and upset, but my family persona smiles, takes a breather, engages with the family, and then comes back to the desk later. Yes, I didn’t get stuff done, but that’s ok. There’s always tomorrow.
So, learn from my mistakes. Here are the 6 takeaways:
- Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Your time is precious, so find where your value add is the highest.
- Imperfect but relevant beats perfect but irrelevant. If you’re not the key person that has to be happy with your work, get feedback from the one that matters.
- What is perfect today is imperfect tomorrow. Some things have an expiration date. Perfection is meaningless if you miss the window of relevancy.
- Not everything is important. If you give everything 120% effort, then you can’t tell what has value or meaning.
- The point of the plan is to not follow the plan. Recall it is a guide to getting to the goal, not a goal in itself. And is the most relevant when you start. Its value can decay as you progress.
- Be Zen when interruptions happen. Despite your best efforts, sometimes things just don’t go your way, such is the nature of life. Accept it and move on…
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